Briefing

What's in a (virus) name?

What we call diseases can be considered offensive — or a 'woke word game'

The World Health Organization says it's working to rename "monkeypox," a smallpox-like, sexually transmissible disease that has spread to at least 39 countries so far this year. Here's everything you need to know:

Why change the name of monkeypox?

The first American case of monkeypox — a more benign version of the smallpox virus typically transmitted to humans by infected animals — was detected in Massachusetts on June 19. However, the disease was first discovered in 1958, in a colony of research monkeys, hence its current name. Despite that, the original source of the disease remains unknown, according to the CDC.

On June 10, a group of 29 scientists published a letter outlining the "urgent need for a non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing nomenclature for monkeypox virus." The thinking is that a new name will help to "dispel stereotypes of Africa being seen as a crucible of disease," France24 writes, with the scientists adding that "there is growing evidence that the most likely scenario is that cross-continent, cryptic human transmission has been ongoing for longer than previously thought," despite an "increasing narrative … trying to link the present global outbreak to Africa or West Africa, or Nigeria."

A WHO spokesperson further explained to Forbes that monkeypox "was named before the WHO developed guidelines that recommend against using geographic regions or animal names."

Why has there been backlash against changing the name of monkeypox?

"[The] fact that the name monkeypox is the subject of controversy at all is itself downstream of a public health failure," argues Christian Britschgi at Reason, pointing out that the disease "managed to go worldwide" despite the "public health bureaucracy" in place. "How it managed to do that is still something of a mystery" but "rather than crack that case, some public health officials instead seem content to play woke word games."

Others also bristled at a perceived attempt at political correctness by WHO, with Michael Deacon pushing back on the idea that the name monkeypox is "racist" in The Telegraph. "Apparently [the WHO] thinks the victims of any discrimination and stigma will be people from Africa," he wrote, though "I don't see how they get this idea from the word 'monkeypox.' After all, monkeys don't just come from Africa — they're also found in Asia, and South and Central America."

Tim Young, a columnist for the conservative Washington Times, likewise disputed the idea that monkeypox is "racist," claiming in a tweet that "it's only racist if you're a racist."

Have there been other diseases with controversial names?

Yes — the most recent and memorable of which was COVID-19.

During the 2020 election season, former President Donald Trump frequently used "China Virus," "Wuhan Virus," and even "Kung Flu" to refer to the outbreak. Separately, The Epoch Times proposed calling the disease the "CCP Virus," in order to blame the Chinese Communist Party government for the pandemic. Other proponents of the name "Wuhan Virus" noted that the Spanish flu, German measles, and Zika virus are all named after places and that none of those names is considered offensive.

Critics, however, deemed such terms bigoted, pointing to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.

How was COVID-19 ultimately named?

The virus' official name is SARS-CoV-2, which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but when the virus first began making news, almost everyone called it "the coronavirus." Technically, this term referred not to one specific virus, but to the subfamily Orthocoronavirinae, which is distinguished by its members' resemblance to a solar corona.

Within a few months, though, it was clear we'd be living with this virus for a while. Five syllables was too many. By June 2020, Google searches for "COVID" had outpaced searches for "coronavirus."

"COVID" is an abbreviation of COrona VIrus Disease. The "19" refers to 2019, the year it was first identified.

How are COVID variants named?

For internal classification, the World Health Organization gives variants names like "B.1.1.529." Not particularly helpful to the layperson, though!

On March 31, 2021, the WHO announced that it would begin assigning Greek-letter names to new "Variants of Concern" and "Variants of Interest." Infectious diseases expert Maria Van Kerkhove wrote that the Greek-letter names would "help with public discussion" but "don't replace existing scientific names, which convey [important] scientific info and will continue to be used in research."

Not all variants make headlines. The Alpha variant — also called the "British variant" — was discovered in Kent in November 2020. Very little ink was spilled over Beta and Gamma, but Delta became a household name when it ravaged the U.S. in January 2022.

The WHO proceeded to Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, and Mu, but then skipped straight to Omicron, passing over Nu and Xi. "'Nu' is too easily confounded with 'new,' and 'Xi' was not used because it is a common last name," the WHO explained. "Xi" is a common Chinese surname, but some observers suggested that the WHO had a particular Xi in mind.

The decision to skip the Greek letter Xi "really shows you the clout that China has," comedian Trevor Noah said. "Because the World Health Organization is like, 'Uh, we don't want to offend one guy in China,'" namely Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Notably, the WHO is heavily funded by the Chinese government.

Do medical terms like these change often?

Yes. Pejoratives like "idiot," "imbecile," "moron," and "retarded" have historically been used as medical and legal terms. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Language Act, removing the word "lunatic" from U.S. federal law. The currently preferred terms are "mental illness" and "intellectual disability" — but there's a chance those terms change one day, too.

Psychologist Steven Pinker coined the phrase "euphemism treadmill" to describe this process in 1994. "The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge: Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name," he wrote. "We will know we have achieved equality and mutual respect when names ... stay put."

In other words, constantly updating our terms treats the symptoms, not the disease. If something has been truly destigmatized, it doesn't matter what you call it.

Of course, it's possible that there's no way off the treadmill. Disease and madness have been literally marginalized for millennia — in the Hebrew Bible, lepers are banished from the camp and the mad King Nebuchadnezzar is "driven from among men." When people wish to demean or "other" a person or group, they tend to look to such marginal categories. Modern examples include the Fox News talking point about COVID-positive migrants crossing the southern border and the common tendency to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "madman."  

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